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GROWING PAINS

How Covid-19 Changed the Higher Education Landscape

Published in the January 2023 Issue Published online: Jan 02, 2023 Trends in Education
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By Catherine Black

When Covid-19 suddenly forced college classes to go online, Samantha Lee, a biology major at the Idaho Falls campus of Idaho State University (ISU), felt it.

“I found myself trying to homeschool my children to make sure their education wasn’t impacted while trying to keep up with my own,” she said. “It was a very difficult semester.”

While new technology and online options had been slowly changing higher education, the pandemic disruption caused an immediate re-examination of the delivery of college classes to local students.

“The pandemic permanently changed expectations of what higher education should look like,” said Dr. Eliezer Schwarz, an ISU– Idaho Falls biology instructor.

Already Accustomed to Remote Learning

Even before Covid, ISU – Idaho Falls was adept at reaching students who were not on campus as much as those at a traditional residential college. Many ISU classes in Idaho Falls were delivered by video conference from Pocatello. For these students, learning from professors on a computer screen at home wasn’t very different from the television they were accustomed to on campus.

Many local students were already primarily taking classes online while using the ISU– Idaho Falls campus for academic advising, mental health counseling, tutoring and social activities. These services moved fairly smoothly to remote platforms during the pandemic.

Pandemic restrictions have ended, but higher education has not returned to the pre-pandemic model in east Idaho.
While many in-person courses and services have returned, remote options for many of these have persisted. Idaho Falls area students can now take more courses locally than before the pandemic, although the number of courses offered in-person in Idaho Falls is reduced.

Online Learning Pros and Cons

Lee has mixed feelings about online classes.

“Having children, I need to be home when they get off the bus, be home for sick days and run kids to after-school activities,” she said. “My time is very limited and it’s nice to have more flexibility in schedules and classes.

“Online classes are a needed thing, but I think there is a good way of doing it. I most definitely would not take a chemistry class online or upper division classes. Those classes are more time-consuming and are great for student involvement with teachers and other students. I enjoy open discourse and argument-driven inquiry, which is harder to do online.”

Several other ISU– Idaho Falls students prefer their courses in-person. Carson Stokes stated that for him “online learning in general is worse than in-class. The ambition isn’t there.”

Hailie Oldham agreed. “I definitely didn’t focus when I was online. It is so easy to get distracted.”

Michaela McGuiness felt similarly. “I would have never passed General Chemistry if I hadn’t been in class where the teacher asked me questions,” she said.

New Flexibility Benefits Students

Students noticed some positive effects from pandemic changes. Students and faculty are both now more adept at technology.

Lee said it this way: “Having online classes supports geographic diversity that can create connections with students in more rural and isolated communities. The enrollment is high enough for the university to offer the class because the students are spread out across Idaho.”

Higher education institutions now realize that they need to invest in resources that allow them to be flexible for all sorts of crises (whether campus-wide or for individual students) and have back-up options for delivering education when these crises arise.

Flexibility Also has Drawbacks

Faculty and students also note some lingering negative effects from the pandemic.

“It made students expect to be able to get an education remotely under all circumstances, even if that is not in their best interest,” Schwarz said. Some students recognize that they don’t learn well online but choose to do so anyway for the convenience, even when they could attend an on-campus class.

Since the pandemic, some professors allow students to attend classes by Zoom any time they wish.

“I like the Zoom option in case I’m sick and can’t go to class,” Stokes said. “I can still take notes and hear what the instructor says, but I also feel like it’s a good excuse to skip class.”

Many professors now also record their courses. Mechanical engineering major Tyler Russell shared that “The recordings are really nice to go back and review, but this makes it so some students don’t go to class and they don’t seem to do as well.”

ISU is exploring ways to continue providing the flexibility in course format and attendance that was gained during the pandemic while encouraging students to engage in classes in ways that are most beneficial to their learning.

Just like the work environments that students are preparing for post-college, ISU– Idaho Falls is still adjusting to a “new normal” for post-pandemic education.

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